The last week has felt like an inflection point in the story of Donald Trump's run for the White House, when the undertone of hate and violence that has thrummed under his campaign became much louder and more explicit than it had been up until now. There had been protests before, and ugly words and some pushing and shoving—not to mention encouragement from the man with the microphone. But something has changed, and become impossible for nearly anyone to ignore.
Every Trump rally now vibrates with the potential for violence, even more than they did before. The rally that was cancelled in Chicago when the protesters who arrived numbered nearly as many as Trump's fans was a significant event. But the most important moment may have come at the rally a few days before in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when a protester was being led out of the arena by police and an older man stepped forward and sucker-punched the young man in the head. "You bet I liked it," the assailant said afterward. "The next time we see him, we might have to kill him." And when someone tried to rush the stage at a Trump rally in Dayton, Ohio, before being tackled by security, members of the audience immediately began shouting "Kill him!" and "Kick his ass!" in a positively euphoric outpouring of bloodlust.
Trump himself, while saying he doesn't condone violence, decided that the man in Dayton was some kind of ISIS sympathizer, and the one who got punched in Fayetteville had it coming. "From what I understand, he was sticking a certain finger up in the air. And that is a terrible thing to do in front of somebody that frankly wants to see America made great again," Trump explained, going on to say that he might pay for the puncher's legal bills. He's been telling his supporters to fight back against protesters for a while, and they now seem ready to take the advice.
And I promise you, there were Trump supporters watching at home who wished they had been there in Fayetteville, so they could have been the one to smack that black kid in the face. To so many people, Trump is offering not just the promise of a better future, or a vision of a triumphant America, but something more basic: permission. He's giving them permission to let out into the light of day their disgust, their contempt, and their rage. And as in so many other ways, he's doing what other Republican politicians can't do, or at least haven't done. He's making the implicit into the explicit, not putting a veneer of civility or respect on what they really want. For many of his supporters, it seems to be intoxicating. Even if for the rest of us it's a horror.
This willingness to be explicit lies at the heart of Trump's appeal, and continually reinforces the difference between him and other politicians. It's manifest in amusing ways, like how instead of trying to convince you he's intelligent, he'll just say, "I'm, like, a really smart person." It comes out in his approach to policy, which is to distill the plans the rest of the pencil-neck geeks offer down into their essence. ISIS? We'll knock the hell out of 'em, enough said. An economic plan? The plan is to bring back all the jobs. Immigrants? Get rid of 'em, build a wall, it'll be great.
And always, always, Trump says that "political correctness" is dragging America down. So to his people, he says: You have permission. Say what you want, and don't worry about whether someone thinks it's racist or sexist or just being a jerk. Give vent to everything you feel, no matter how ugly it might be. So when Trump's fans say "He tells it like it is," what they're really saying is "He tells it like I see it." And now, they have permission to tell it that way, too—and maybe swing a fist, if one of those people gets close enough to them.
Is all this going to calm down, or get even worse? It's hard to know. But let's consider where we might be in a couple of months. The vast majority of the Republican Party leadership—its elected officials, its top donors and fundraisers, its political consultants and strategists—is not united not around any particular alternative to Trump or even the idea that there might be a candidate who can defeat him outright in the primaries. Instead, they have concluded that Trump must be stopped in the only way that remains: if he falls short of a majority of the delegates by the time the primaries conclude, then they'll go to a contested convention at which the nomination can be wrested from him and given to someone else. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are all hoping it will be them, but it might also be someone who didn't run this year, like Paul Ryan.
That is a real possibility. But imagine for a moment what would happen if things actually worked out that way. Trump arrives at the Republican convention in Cleveland with a clear delegate lead over Cruz and the others. An initial vote is taken, in which Trump finishes first but short of a majority. Then there's a frenzy of maneuvering—just the kind of backroom dealing by the "establishment" that Trump's voters despise. Then more votes happen, with each one presumably getting closer and closer to a nominee as delegates switch their allegiances (there's an explanation of the process here).
Then the final vote happens, and the TV networks following the drama announce that someone other than Donald Trump will by the 2016 Republican nominee. It isn't a stretch to imagine that Trump's most fervent supporters, some inside the hall and some gathered outside, will positively lose their minds.
These people—who have been told that the party bosses are their enemy, who have been told that the country is run by idiots, who have been told that everything is going to hell and Trump is the only one who can save them, who have been told that they should nurture their resentments and let it all flow out of them in a righteous river of rage—these people will now learn that it has been stolen from them. Will they say, "Man, I'm really disappointed," and head back home, heads hung low? Or will they look for somebody's head to bash?
Maybe they'll surprise us, and it will turn out to be the former. But Trump has already given them permission to do whatever they feel.